Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Schooling for the Sorrel Stud and Me

Neil O. Jones

As kids, my buddy T-Bone and I weren’t half-bad with horses. From handling our own mounts, to training the herd at the riding stable where we worked, we did ok with them. One day that skill, plus my youthful sense of invincibility, set me to have a challenge with a half-crazy sorrel stud that near killed me.

Young, spunky and unpredictable, the spirited stallion responded all right to guiding and going—he loved to run—he just never got “whoa” in his understanding. One late summer morning, just to show out a little because I was young, spunky and unpredictable, I told T-Bone to watch me because I was going to ride that horse with nothing—no saddle or bridle—a feat we had both done often on gentler horses. My bravado at thirteen, outpaced my common sense by a good ten lengths. And T-Bone knew it, as shown by his grinning as he held the sorrel steady while I hopped up on him. As I mounted, the stud’s eyes flared as he jerked free and stirred around nervously. When I had him pointed right, I clucked and squeezed in with my feet. He reared and in three jumps was in a dead run.

With his mane cut flat-top short, there was nothing to hold. He twisted and crow-hopped as he ran with me hanging around his neck, my legs tight around his belly. As he was nearing a ditch, I figured he would have to jump it at full speed, or plant his hooves like stakes in the dirt and slingshot me over his head at thirty miles per hour.

I bounced and held on and reached up and clenched the only thing I could, his right ear. I pulled and twisted that ear and was able to get just enough leverage for him to cut to the right and slam to a stop in four hard bounces, when I flipped head over heels and over his head and landed square on my back in a poof of July-dry Texas dust.

Pain bolted through my entire body, and I kept my eyes closed tight as the dust cloud blanketed me. Flat on the ground, I couldn’t move at first except to open my eyes. All I could see was a huge, upside-down horse nose, three inches from mine, snorting and sniffing. For an odd moment neither of us moved even a blink. His black eyes stared at me curiously, his ears erect and his nostrils wide, and so close his hot breaths were blowing dust off my face.

In a jerk, he raised his head, pawed the ground and nickered. Then the young stud reared once as he took off in a tear, kicking dust up again. He ran full out across the pasture, bucking and kicking and breaking wind and whinnying the exact way studs do right after they breed and are feeling plum giddy with satisfaction. And as if he knew how to add insult, he ran back to the catch pen as T-Bone opened the gate for him. It would be a painful walk back for me.

I had folded upright when T-Bone yelled from across the way and asked if I was still alive. I was not sure. It took a little bit, while I figured on an answer. “Don’t know . . . yet.”

After some effort, I was able to get to my feet and take a few steps. Eventually I was able to straighten up better and limp on back toward the barn, cussing low and to myself, kicking a rock or two in my path, and hurting inside and out. A fat horned toad darted in front of me, stopped, and swiveled his thorny head sideways and up at me. I slowed and thought just a second about kicking it down the trail a bit too, but thought better and stepped over him and hobbled on.

T-Bone had the horses in the pen and was bending over to check a hoof on his horse when he saw me coming. I could feel his grinning as he said out loud without looking up, “’Bout time you got to work, since I reckon these horses ain’t learned to saddle themselves yet, and I doubt they’d do it if they did.”

My throat was dry and I thought how good water would be, but I dared not stop for fear the pain would keep me from moving again. I said, “Don’t wait on me to show you how to saddle the first one,” as I walked past him and into the tack room and straight for the bridle hanging on the last wall nail on the left. It was a Mexican-made, one-ear bridle, with long shanks and a high curved bit designed for high-spirited horses. I went in the catch pen with the bridle held behind me. The sorrel was easy enough to catch though; maybe he figured I would cause him no problems. I adjusted the bridle on him to have the right play. As I swung up on him I groaned but wanted to scream. There was a fire in my left ribs.

T-Bone was at the gate. With an upward hand motion I said, “Okay, T-Bone.” He stepped in to wave his arms and shoo back two horses that were near the gate. Then he opened it up enough for me to ride through. As we went by him in a fast trot, he tossed me a braided quirt made from pieces of old plow lines. In one motion I caught it with my right hand and came down with a hard crack on the horse’s flank.

It more spooked that red horse than hurt him, I figured, as I knew he didn’t see anything in my hand when I got on him. I held on and got in rhythm with him as he jumped into his run. T-Bone let out a long howl and shouted, “Warm him, son! Warm him!”

Hunkered over his neck, I raised up every few seconds to remind the stud of the quirt I had. I rode him over the spot where we had parted ways before. He kicked up the same dust we had stirred up earlier, only this time I made him jump that ditch. There was a silence as my Pegasus was airborne briefly. We landed with a ka-thump and I slid halfway up his neck. I scooted back and warmed him again to let him know the plans were the same on this side of the ditch.

We stirred up a dust cloud as we streaked across the dry pasture and the hot blowing air burned my eyes as we moved. I thought of a vigilant horned toad opening his straight mouth and lifting his thorny head in feeling the quake of us coming before he could see us. I wondered if he was there before when we were running through the area, or if he was near when I bounced on the ground and stirred up a dust storm for him, and he must have figured the area was getting entirely too populated with large animals that stomped and bounced all over the place.

The sorrel and I got doused as I ran him across Blue-Hole creek in four long leaps. He slipped on some mossy rocks and stumbled sideways, but caught himself, throwing me half-off the other side. With just a hand on his neck and a knee across his withers, I pulled and wriggled back up on him and we set off again at full speed. I pushed him hard through the woods, as we were scraped by limbs and dodging trees until we made it to the hill area. Then I ran him some more, then slow-loped, then trotted, then stopped and made him back up much longer and faster than he wanted since he couldn’t see where he was headed and had to trust that we weren’t backing into some hole or saw briars. Then I repeated the routine and mixed things up and did a little of fast and slow, forward and backward.

We jumped a big jackrabbit and set out after him for the sheer sport of it. As we were gaining on the jack’s ten-foot bounds, it zigged left into some thick undergrowth of honeysuckle and saw briars. When I jerked the stud’s head toward that thicket, that sorrel must have believed we were going in there after that rabbit. I believe he would have done it too, but I stopped him sharply right before it, as he reared and danced and wanted to go.

We stopped a while and I heard nothing but our own deep breathing, in and out, together as if we were one. I felt my legs expanding with each of his quick breaths. He was steaming and white with sweat around my legs and on his neck, back and flanks. Sweat drops flung off him when I patted his neck and told him he was a dandy. Then I raised my wet hand and wiped and marked my own brow. And the sweet smell of honeysuckle blended with the briny smell of wet horse and I drew it in deeply through my nose and it hurt my ribs but I laughed and yelled, “Yes!” The sorrel started to dance under me again to tell me he was ready to go, but I held him taut, because I would tell him when, where and how we would travel.

Moving again, I rubbed his neck and encouraged him when he followed my direction exactly, and cussed him hard and did a pop back on the reins when he didn’t, and made him perform again two, three, four times or more till it suited me. Then I crowned him with praise as I rubbed him between the ears and scratched his neck and told him what a magnificent creature he was. And he began to understand what I wanted with just the press of my knees or touch of the reins or sound of my voice.

As we moved slowly back to the barn, I knew I’d never again disrespect him by trying to ride him without a bridle, and I guessed he might see me a little different the next time also. And we moved together as one through the sage and high grass and sparse cedars, as smoothly as a centaur.


Neil O. Jones was raised in Texas, but has resided in Middle Tennessee since 1978. With a lifelong interest in writing, he has taught college English courses in Texas and Tennessee since 1974. Neil has completed a book-length collection of stories based on the quirky characters he knew and the challenges they faced in his growing-up years in the 1950s and '60s in the South Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. His works have appeared in various print and online venues, including Perceptions 2005, 2006; Southern; and Southern Hum. Neil lives out in the country near Columbia, Tennessee.

© Neil O. Jones

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012